Why Leaders Need Wilderness and Adventure More Than Ever

15442146_10154652500136421_7445886420114317474_nI recently came across a fantastic article by Brynn Schmidt extolling the importance of wilderness adventures for kids.  And as a father who has encouraged my own kids as they’ve grown to explore the world through extended canoe and backpacking trips, to the point that my oldest is about to spend her third summer leading wilderness trips through northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I couldn’t agree more.  But my agreement with Ms. Schmidt’s arguments go far further.  In fact, as an I/O psychology professional, I would make the same (and more) arguments for the value of wilderness tripping as an effective leadership development approach.

Taking Schmidt’s points for kids, let’s expand this and look at the reasons for expanding leadership capacity and competence through wilderness adventures….

  • Leaders often develop better without a schedule – Too often, development is one of those activities or approaches that is squeezed into the busy schedules of modern leaders. As a result, it becomes a “nice to have” more often than not, constantly at risk of getting squeezed out by the tactical needs of the daily grind.  Instead, leaders should be allowed to block intensive development into “schedule free” periods of time, be that a day, a few day seminar, or a week-long experience that takes them outside their normal work environments.  Wilderness immersion leadership development does just that, with cell phones and tablets left behind and only themselves and their peers on which to focus.
  • Leaders develop better with a connection to the natural environment – Psychologists have long recognized the value to our well-being of connecting with nature. The ephemeral experiences available uniquely within the physical environment promote the breadth and depth of thought necessary to see leadership challenges in a new light and from a new perspective.


  • Leaders need time to kick back and relax (and reflect) – Quiet reflection is a hallmark of any high-quality leadership development strategy, yet one of the “nice to haves” that are often overlooked or minimized in development programs that run 9-5, letting out for the evening, during which time leaders race to their laptops to catch up on email and drive-by tasking. Alternatively, during wilderness leadership development, the day ends with more reflection, around the campfire, under the stars, with fellow leaders to bounce ideas off or to work through leadership challenges.
  • Leaders need to learn to exist without technology – You may be sensing a trend here, the escape from modern devices and leadership approaches so heavily intertwined with our technological world. Now, there are certainly benefits to all our technology, but little of it engenders stronger core leadership.  And sometimes, stepping away from our constant contact with bosses, followers, and even spouses alights development sparks untapped previously.  No better way to have that happen then 10 miles out on the John Muir trail, with nary a cell tower or wifi to be found!


  • Leaders enhance their emotional intelligence through conversation – The ability for leaders to gain self-awareness around their own emotions, as well as to better understand the emotional connections with others is a well-recognized goal of developing individuals with the nuanced ability to effectively motivate and influence others. Particularly on wilderness trips with small groups, there is an intimacy borne by shared experience, connection with nature, collective overcoming of challenges, and just living side my side (or even within a tent) that boosts one’s own sense of belonging and understanding of each other.  It’s not that this is not possible to experience in traditional development programs, but the unique elements of being “on the trail” with others has an impact that often surpasses that found in other environments.


Over the next several weeks, I will dive more deeply into each of these ideas with follow-up articles.

In the meantime, what have your experiences been with wilderness tripping, and how have those experiences made you a stronger leader?

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